The Training of an Artist

Biographies are tremendously fascinating, because we get to know about creative people’s lives and the truth about who they really are, rather than the stereotype or caricature or popular image. I watched a documentary on the fabulously prolific and talented Woody Allen, who is best known as the Icon of New York. Not too long ago, I watched a documentary on the legendary Carol Channing (who doesn’t love to mimic that voice? I certainly do!), who is still going strong even over 90 years old. And a few years ago, I had the opportunity to see Patti Smith speak, and once again, it was interesting to see the difference between the stringy-haired, unkempt, androgyne image and the cultured woman who seemed much warmer in person than her forbidding appearance in Mapplethorpe photos would suggest. I suppose I could say that lately, I have had a habit of learning about the biographies of various performers and artists, and it is probably one of the best kinds of training a budding artist can have.

To expand on the above—-Woody Allen is extremely versatile, a multi-talented artist who has mastered film, music (he plays jazz clarinet with a band weekly in Manhattan), screenwriting, fiction writing, and of course, comedy. It is interesting to chart his course as to how he became a filmmaker. He began with writing comedy, and then performing it. Performance was not easy for him, but I believe it gave him an understanding of acting and stage performance that later made him (according to many accounts) the ultimate actor’s director. His influences are varied, from classic literature to New York Jewish culture to music to, nowadays, a very youthful global sensibility. If we look strictly at his artistic work, we see a man who is extremely disciplined, dedicated, and hard working. He seems to put out a feature film almost every year, which is by no means an easy task: there has to be the script, the right cast, the production (sometimes they are on location in a variety of places overseas), the funding, et cetera. It is amazing how Allen always manages to synthesize a wide variety of influences and yet always keep the story focused on his unique and complex characters. He has his own voice; there’s really nobody else quite like him. He’s an artist who really trained himself, not having come from a formally educated background. His most recent films, in my opinion, have a certain freshness to them that some of the earlier ones lack; set in exotic locations or cities with younger and more numerous casts, they are less neurotic and repetitive than previous films. I happen to call it the Soon-Yi effect, but who knows.

Carol Channing is an extremely educated and cultured woman. She grew up in the liberal, diverse city of San Francisco (she herself had some African-American ancestry through her father’s side). She was trained in ballet as a girl. In her documentary, she talks of some Russian music that she liked. She studied at Bennington College (I believe French was her major) before embarking on her professional career. Her husbands were of different ethnic backgrounds. And despite being the object of much mimicry, she herself is an excellent mimic! She has performed everywhere, so her sense of peoples and audiences is vast. What we see on stage is a Broadway star, but the real woman reveals herself as an artist with a tremendous work ethic and great knowledge of culture beyond Broadway.

Patti Smith is another “surprise,” if I dare to use the word. The “Godmother of Punk” with a rather wild, bohemian past is also an autodidact who imbibed as much culture as possible when young. She would read French poets like Rimbaud and peruse books on great European painters. She lived in New York City, the world’s great cultural mecca, with a budding young photographer named Robert Mapplethorpe. She mingled with other artists and musicians, spent time in Paris, and played in bands. She is known primarily as a musician, but she is also a writer. When I heard her speak a few years ago upon the release of her award-winning memoir Just Kids, she talked about her discipline in writing. Smith also said she never feels a lack of inspiration, because she is always reading the work of other writers or seeing the work of other artists. She mentioned, with admiration, how bassist Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) warms up with Bach runs. Last year, I saw her exhibit, Camera Solo, which was a collection of photographs of places and objects she loved. The photographs themselves were not so extraordinary were striking; however, what was most fascinating was Patti’s canon—-her choice of subjects that she photographed that meant something to her. I must be clear, I am not so familiar with her music, but I find her extremely fascinating as an artist with such a vast knowledge of culture in all its facets. Apparently the French agree: they awarded her the prestigious Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2005.

These are just 3 examples of artists whose paths and training I found inspiring and fascinating. There are so many more artists’ paths out there waiting to be discovered by young or new artists. It is my feeling that, ultimately, an artist must educate her/himself.

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Take Back the Right: Why Liberals Should Reclaim Common Social Institutions

My undergraduate was degree was officially in anthropology. I studied, among other things, the various institutions human beings have created for themselves, as well as various kinship ties, symbols, language, etc. These socio-cultural phenomena are as old as humankind, as old as Homo sapiens. So I must ask, why should these be the sole domains of the more conservative, Right-leaning factions of American society? Why has the right wing hijacked, so to speak, these institutions, and why don’t liberals speak up and reclaim them?

Take the institution of family, for example. Everyone comes from a family, and everyone belongs to a family, and a majority of people go on to have their own family, in whatever shape or form. Family is the oldest form of kinship ties since the advent of Homo sapiens. Throughout history, families were the basis of economic systems, and strove to maintain their continuity in order to pass on their wealth. Marriage was meant to support family ties, often uniting rivals or uniting wealth. Religious epics and tales were written about families: Cain and Abel as well as Abraham and Isaac in the Bible, or the Hindu Mahabharata (5 brothers’ fight to keep their kingdom), for example. Even larger than a family is the institution of a clan or a tribe; once again, these served a similar purpose as the family, and provided an identity to people in a given geographical area.

Somehow, however, in our extremely individualistic society, the Christian Right managed to claim the family as their rallying point. It became their domain, their political and religious motive. They managed to polarize those on the left, characterizing them as self-serving individuals outside of the institution. The liberals, in turn, began to identify family only with conservatism, with extremists, and with the oppression of women. With the advent of birth control in the 60s, many women fought for the right to enjoy their sexuality without procreation as a consequence. This was a necessary step; however, it gave more fuel to the fire for the conservatives to claim the family as their own. By linking sexual pleasure and freedom with individualism, rather than linking them with the natural human experience, sexuality was dichotomized at odds with family values—-unless, of course, one was extremely religious and expected to their numerous children.

But what of all of the family-oriented people who support a more tolerant society? The people who vote left of center, but would rather be at home with the kids instead of at the office over time? The people who are so committed to serving humanity both on a personal level through their family, and on a social level through politics, social work, activism, etc.? Just look at the Obama family: the President’s late, great mother Ann was a huge influence in his life, and she was committed to his well being, as were his grandparents who helped raise him. President Obama himself has often spoken of the importance of his own wife and children, and of the necessity of men serving their role as fathers, given his own father’s absence. Michelle Obama’s mother lives with her daughter’s family in the White House as the “First Granny” who attends to her granddaughters. The Kennedys are another such example—-a veritable clan rather than just the family, they are involved in all manner of political, social, and environmental activism. On a less grand scale, think of all the 60s activists who married and had children, and still continue today in towns like Ann Arbor or Berkeley or Cleveland to attend city council meetings, work with disabled children, teach, or fight for clean water. It is these individuals who go unrecognized by the media and our cultural zeitgeist. We only realize they are there when they have to leave the meeting early to pick up their child from tennis practice. Let’s not forget that America’s greatest activist/“rabble-rouser”, Noam Chomsky, married his childhood sweetheart when young and they were together for 60 years before she died.

Religion is often considered the domain of the Right. We have been conditioned to associate family values with religion. We know of the (Irish) Catholic families, Mormons, Zionist Orthodox Jews, fundamentalist Christians, traditional Muslims, etc., and their large families. Somehow, as a society, we have come to believe that having a larger family equates with more commitment to a family. There could be a grain of truth in this, as it is inevitably more difficult to have a career and to raise five children than to have a career and raise two. But what of the proverbial Indian doctor and Democrat who spends all of his or her free time helping the kids with homework? The Asian-American social worker whose parents come to visit for a month at a time? The gay African-American man who takes in his sister for a while when she is going through a transition? Think of all the working parents who would love to have a much longer maternity leave, and even a paternity leave if the office will grant it, in a society that touts “family values” but does very little to foster them. This is one of the great hypocrisies of American society: it is not a child- or family-friendly culture at all. The very Republicans who seem to speak loudly about family values are the ones who do the least to foster appropriate social policies.

And then there are also quintessentially American symbols that have become associated with the Right. As a friend pointed out once, the flag is one such example. If we see a flag waving in front of somebody’s house, in America we tend to associate it with extreme patriotism, conservatism, Republicanism. Again, we have to ask why? In the tiny nation of Denmark, I saw Danish flags flying everywhere, and I doubt that the entire country is rapidly jingoistic. Flags have been in existence before the Common Era and have been used for a wide variety of purposes: battle, royalty, to represent a particular group of people, and even for prayer—-in the mountainous kingdom of Bhutan, I recall visiting a mountain pass decorated with hundreds of prayer flags, and in the fog, it was a very mystical experience. Flags have been used at sea, for communication across great distances (think semaphores), as banners used as a rallying point for a particular social cause. They are used as a symbol, an emblem, a visual representation of an idea that does not require words. Flags alert us to something—-fire, perhaps, or in the modern world, a particular type of e-mail! But somehow, once again, the American conservatives have claimed this basic human institution, as though they are the sole purveyors of sentiment for our country.

It is understandable that, during the post-World War II period and the 1950s, America sought to avoid all the pitfalls seen in Europe and in other parts of the world such as totalitarianism, communism, fascism, the prohibition of free speech. America was reacting to severe European nationalism, but instead, it created a ridiculous sort of nationalism of its own. Our nationalism cannot be based on fear and exclusion; nor should it be based on a foolish lack of historicity and a usurping of institutions, symbols, and phenomena that have served humans since the beginning of our existence. So let this serve as a call to liberals and those who do not lean politically to the right. Wake up, liberals! Reclaim your basic human institutions, liberals! Let’s not make “family”, “religion”, “the flag”, and other words dirty words in our vocabulary. Let us not let the silly connotations of these words created by the Right affect our own true understanding of these words that have mattered for millennia. Let us use our intelligence to attack the ignorance of the Right.

American Optimism: Our Country’s Most Distinguishing Characteristic

There is much to criticize about America; have no doubt about that. I cannot solve all of society’s ills, nor even begin to comment on all of them. I cannot address them all in my lifetime. I cannot express everything that needs to be said about a nation that is part superpower, part developing country. America is indeed fraught with problems.

To name but a paltry few: the wrong industries are privatized (healthcare for one, and that will merit a separate post); lawyers have too much power and therefore create a culture of fear that affects our economics; middlemen, such as stockbrokers or any sort of financial agents feed off of necessary transactions and therefore charge exorbitant fees to customers; access to healthcare and quality education is still tragically unequal; the right wing controls religion, patriotism, and social issues; “family values” is a joke, for adequate maternity/paternity leave, affordable childcare, and child-friendly facilities are virtually nonexistent; civil liberties go to such extremes that our government and social institutions are often prevented from being able to care for people’s well-being; corporate culture dominates so much of the business world; developers have all too much power and get away with all sorts of environmental and urban atrocities; unions, though begun with noble goals, get out of hand and create unreasonable demands on any given financial system; ridiculous Puritanism coupled with excessive lechery prohibit a healthy expression and understanding of sensuality and sexuality in American culture; an obsession with money and work clashes with basic fundamentals of health (how many sick people or injured have to drag themselves to work out of fear?); racism still exists on subtle levels; the sexual revolution has been just that—-sexual—-and women still in many cases do not get equal rights or at least respect from men outside of the bedroom.

That take away all of these negatives in American society, strip all of these extremes and unethical behaviors away, and at the bottom of it, there exists a wonderful culture and people. Gloria Steinem once made a remark that America was the greatest living social experiment, or something to that effect, and one cannot help but feel that she had a good point. Ours is a country with an arguably unparalleled diversity, diversity that often shocks visitors from other countries and, inadvertently, biases our minds when we visit homogenous countries that seem “racist.” A Jew might live across the street from Hindus whose neighbors are Polish Catholics and whose friends down the block are a secular Turkish Muslim married to an atheist (my childhood). Those fortunate enough to live in urban areas might eat cereal for breakfast, pad thai for lunch, and gnocchi from the trattoria for dinner.

We have a genuine openness that stuns foreigners, trusting optimism that says “yes” rather than “no.” Our society is built on the premise that mobility and self-betterment are okay, that there is no shame in these things. (Recall the scorn heaped by the British upper classes on the self-made, enterprising Middletons). The American spirit is a can-do one, a spirit with a minimum of suspicion. Yes, in certain areas of the country—-usually regions with strong community ties in the interior, or in small towns—-there is a sense of jealousy against those who try to get ahead. But generally speaking, success is greeted positively in America, especially when compared with how it is viewed in other parts of the world.

Even romantically, as Americans, we want a happy ending. We want the guy to get the girl at the end of the movie. We women want to have the career *and* the husband. We want the nice wedding reception at the vineyard. We have a certain “teleology” (as a friend of mine put it) with romantic relationships. This is often in stark contrast to the very rationalistic, social welfare cultures of Northern and Western Europe where many couples don’t feel the impetus to have their relationship recognized by the state, and don’t need marriage as a means of economic fulfillment since one’s needs are taken care of by the government. “We are happy as we are” many of them might say, and there is no arguing with that. A number of Americans feel the same way as well. But romance is one of the oldest, and most fundamental human impulses and marriage one of the oldest institutions—-why shouldn’t it “lead somewhere”??

We want to move forward as a culture, we are always moving forward, and certainly sometimes this can be less than a positive. Look at the stress levels of Americans compared to those of people in other developed nations. Look at the waste we create in our highly consumerist society. Look at the shallowness of our popular media in the age of Kardashian Kulture. Again, we have to add these things to the list of our society’s ills. There are many countries that come out ahead of the United States on indices of quality of life, and it’s not often hard to see why.

But our optimism will always include awareness; there are always those who want things in our country to grow sustainably, so to speak. We don’t have stigmas against trying. Our educational system fosters an openness of thought even from an early age, and the older I get, the more I realize how special this is. Criticize what you will about the United States, but you cannot justifiably criticize her optimism. Those who don’t believe it can only be considered the worst kind of skeptics.

Happy 237th Birthday, America!